Two other online features round out version 6's improvements: a gifting feature and a recommendation engine. You can now send a friend a particular song, album, playlist, video, or audiobook with the gifting service, instead of sending an impersonal gift certificate. If you really want a friend to hear a particular song, find the album within the iTunes Music Store and click the Gift This option from the top of the screen. You'll then get a nearly identical screen with a green background, from which you can select the song. Recipients get an e-mail notification and, in order to download the song, need to have an iTunes account--which is free but might be challenging to set up for less tech-savvy users.
The new recommendation engine is called Just For You and is still in beta. It's a useful way to discover new music since it bases recommendations on content you've already purchased. From its list, you can mark which ones you already have and which you don't like, to help it refine future suggestions. We usually liked what it suggested for us and were happy to explore the bands we hadn't heard of--but we were alarmed that Olivia Newton-John keeps coming up high in our list. C'mon, we bought only one of her songs.
The iTunes application can play MP3s, AACs, Apple Lossless, and Audible music files, as well as H.264 and MPEG-4 video files. It also lets Windows users convert unprotected WMA files ripped with other programs into unprotected AAC files so that iTunes (and the iPod, if you have one) can play them. The program offers an equally healthy set of options for ripping CDs; you can choose between MP3, AAC, and the Apple Lossless codec, which compresses files in half without losing any CD information. Additionally, Mac users can set iTunes to automatically synchronize Address Book contacts and iCal calendars with their iPod, while Windows users can sync calendar and contact info from Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express.
iTunes shines in the area of organization. You can create a playlist and manually add songs or create a self-updating smart list that lets you specify certain parameters. The Party Shuffle feature creates an instant playlist from your music library or from any playlist, and it's a useful way to play DJ as you can add songs on the fly by right-clicking. If the shuffle list doesn't have what you want to hear, you can reorder the songs and add more tunes from your library via drag and drop. Nested playlists, new in version 5, let you organize your collection any way you want; for example, you can create genre folders that hold individual artist folders.
While the feature set nearly matches that of other music organizers, Apple has chosen to omit some features that are standard elsewhere. To print a CD cover, don't look for a cover-printing command. Instead, create a playlist of the songs on the CD and choose Print from the File menu. You'll have the option of printing a plain text cover or a mosaic of album art, but you won't have the option of designing a cover yourself.
We'd still like to see a line-in recording feature that would allow users to capture external audio sources into AAC, MP3, or any other supported format. Also, while applications such as Musicmatch Jukebox have a built-in album art retrieval service, you have to find your own with iTunes if you haven't purchased your songs from the Music Store. Likewise, iTunes can't automatically correct song tags, as Yahoo Music Unlimited can. Radio streams are decent in iTunes, though they are not as advanced as the ones offered in Napster, Musicmatch, and Rhapsody. For example, you cannot skip to the next track or purchase a song from the radio interface. Personalized radio would be a nice next step for iTunes. And while WMA music stores such as Napster, Rhapsody, and Yahoo offer all-you-can-eat subscription and to-go services, iTunes doesn't include this increasingly popular option.Years of reliable use have convinced us that iTunes is a solid performer. It's quick, too, but that mostly depends on your hardware. Ripping a 66-minute CD took us 24 minutes flat on our 933MHz PowerPC G4 test system with a 24X (read CD) drive. Syncing an iPod is far faster, with songs whizzing by at the rate of about 1 second per track. Be careful with the current iPods, though--the Shuffle, Nano and 5G iPod sync with only USB 2.0 cables. If you have an older computer that doesn't have a USB 2.0 port, you'll get far slower syncing speeds over a USB 1.1 port. If that's the case, you'll want to invest in a USB 2.0 PCI card.
Downloading purchases from the iTunes Music Store takes only about 45 seconds for a 6-minute song over a broadband connection. We're impressed that video downloads are quick, provided you have broadband. We bought a 17MB (3 minutes, 21 seconds) Pixar short and downloaded it in 1 minute, 15 seconds. The 209MB (43 minutes, 28 seconds) Night Stalker premiere took us 17 minutes, 20 seconds to download.
In terms of software stability, we've heard several reports of both Windows and Mac version of iTunes 5 and 6 as either crashing or performing oddly, though we haven't experienced any problems in our many hours with the program on both platforms.If you're having trouble with iTunes, you'll find plenty of answers in the program's electronic help files and the support area of Apple's site. Don't miss the user forums, which are often more helpful than the official documents. If you've purchased another Apple product such as an iPod and its phone help is still valid, you can call for free iTunes-related support. If you're having trouble with a store purchase, though, getting help can be a little trickier. Apple's e-mail form is at the bottom of each topic page, and you can use it to send an e-mail to the company but only after viewing a help topic on the site. Apple promises a response within 72 hours, which is two days too slow for our tastes. In fact, one of our e-mails regarding corrupted AAC files that we purchased still hasn't been answered.